99 Years of America’s Best Idea

By Kendall Gilbert, Centennial Volunteer Ambassador at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park | Georgia | Tennessee

We celebrate a lot of things.

But it’s not often we celebrate ideas. I mean, where’s the day that celebrates the time Ben Franklin flew a kite during a thunderstorm? The holiday for that afternoon Isaac Newton happened to by sitting under an apple tree? Or the day commemorating the time Alexander Fleming returned to his pigsty of a laboratory to find that a fungus had annihilated the colonies of bacteria in one of his petri dishes? How about the publishing of De Revolutionibus by our pal Nicholas Copernicus?

You get the picture. I would happily join in a celestial parade celebrating National Heliocentric Day. Or bake an apple cake in honor of National Gravity Appreciation Day. Or don my best Darwin, Curie, Einstein, or Pasteur costume for a holiday celebrating our most beloved scientists.

We might be years from this.

But on Tuesday, August 25th, we did get to celebrate something significant, what many call America’s Greatest Idea. We celebrated the 99th year of the establishment of the National Park Service. A celebration that I have been brought on for as a volunteer ambassador leading up to the NPS Centennial in 2016.

Established by Congress in 1916 via the Organic Act, the National Park Service was created to care for public land that preserves and protects our greatest natural, historical, and cultural resources. Each park represents an important part of our collective identity as Americans that is worthy of recognition. Some parks commemorate notable people and achievements, others address some of the darker moments in American history, and still others protect breathtaking landscapes and natural wonders. Today we have 408 national parks made up of preserves, trails, seashores, monuments, battlefields, and historic sites.

As ninety-nine years have passed, the mission of the National Parks Service has extended further than just maintaining and creating parks. The National Park Service, through a variety of initiatives, partnerships, and programs works to ensure that we understand the ecological, social, and communal benefits of maintaining our national parks. Beyond just family vacations and Ken Burns documentaries (which by the way, Ken Burns can make a documentary about paint drying and we’d all watch it, in the mean time check out The National Parks: America’s Best Idea), national parks can be revered for their public health benefits, their inspiration for the arts, their ability to memorialize the most intangible thing of all, our memory.

The National Parks Conservation Association reports that in 2014, the National Park System received over 292 million recreation visits, while park visitors supported nearly $30 billion in economic activity and nearly 277,000 private-sector jobs. It is estimated that each federal dollar invested in the National Park Service generates $10 in economic activity, a tremendous return on investment to local economies.

Despite this, park funding has long been in decline and has been cut significantly over the past five years. There has been more than a 7%, or $173 million reduction in the account to operate national parks and more than a 12%, or $364 million reduction in the total budget for the National Park Service over the last five years in today’s dollars. Over the last decade since 2005, the total budget for the National Park Service has declined by nearly a half billion dollars, or 22%, in today’s dollars. (National Parks Conservation Association).

What is significant about the National Park Service birthday is that it is a reminder to us all that if we want future generations of Americans and international visitors to come to appreciate, care for, and protect these important treasures, we have to begin the work of instilling in people the value of conservation. I consider it a great honor to work towards this effort over the next year.

I spent the 99th birthday of the  NPS by assisting our volunteer coordinator with a trail project involving 30 + college students from Covenant College on Lookout Mountain. It was a glorious afternoon. The first day all year where the humidity didn’t hit you like a wet sock covering your face. Where the breeze kept up with the heat to make you feel like Julia Andrews running up hills in the Sound of Music. Not a single cell phone appeared among two dozen millenials for over 4 hours.

I was so proud of these students. They had arrived on campus just a week before and were about to start classes in a few days. Most of them were international students with American citizenship whose parents were in the military, or were missionaries, and had spent significant time living abroad. It made our work seem ever more important that these should be young adults who might not have had a childhood experience or summer vacations at a national park. If we could show them that there was a national park right outside their classroom doors, maybe we could inspire these future biologists, writers, teachers, dreamers, doers, and thinkers to also care about protecting and preserving public land.

I hope Lookout Mountain is a place these students can go to when they are dealing with the stresses of growing into their lives. When they are homesick. When they are happy, and grateful, and romantic, and a thousand other feelings. I hope they turn to these trails and views instead of some of the other form of self medication.  I hope they encourage others to as well.

The day reminded me of the fact that seven years ago, I was in the south on Fort Mountain in Georgia as part of an Alternative Spring Break crew working on trail and riverbank restoration projects. That experience, among others pushed me to work in the conservation field. I never would have thought that this year, in a year where by all accounts I should have been asking for a raise at my stable job, maybe saving up to buy a house, maybe doing a couple other upwardly mobile young adult things I would end up leaving it to live on the Tennessee and Georgia border, making peanuts for pay, and supervising college students in their own misadventures (which included getting stung by yellow jackets, and a group losing the trail and taking a nice little 5 mile detour).

I have never celebrated the birthday of the National Park Service. But I am glad I got to do it here, full circle on top of a mountain in Georgia. Here’s to another hundred.

1929720_23352085404_8434_nFort Mountain, Georgia, circa 2008 with Alternative Spring Break Crew from Grand Valley State University, age 19.